They’ve closed off East 27th Street. A New Yorker is used to the streets in their neighborhood being blocked off for filming – overpaid union film crews, mostly men, standing around for hours and hours, appearing to do little all day except drink coffee, chat, check their mobile phones and, once in a while, put some electrical lines together or move a prop twenty feet this way or that way. Tonight, from one of the film trucks I see a man angrily yanking equipment out and smashing them onto the pavement. Maybe he has just had an argument with one of his fellow workers, or maybe his wife left him this morning. Whatever it is, the violence that this man does to that precious equipment disturbs me. Only a few days earlier I was in Tehran and on a location shoot for a documentary. The difference between the care that each equipment is handled over in Tehran and the way this man is bent on destroying expensive things that are not even his makes me want to go up to him and make him stop. But I stick to my original plan, which is to get something for us to drink and go back upstairs to Rana and Stevie’s little apartment.
Their new CD, Attar Boulevard, is set to come out in September. I’m drawn to Rana and Stevie for a number of reasons, one of which is the peacefulness with which they’ve managed to weave their music into the very fabric of their lives as a couple. They allow one to forget that just outside that window of their small New York studio apartment, there is a world of angry men who are determined to break things only because America can well afford it.
Stevie’s style of guitar playing is what they call ‘Slow Hand,’ and compliments Rana’s unhurried singing approach at every turn. Sometimes you wonder how this man, who does not speak Persian, is able to pluck just the right combination of chords to accentuate the ache in, for example, a Mawlana poem:
مرا دل سوزد و سینه تو را دامن ولی فرق است
که سوز از سوز و دود از دود و درد از درد می دانم
This song, number 2 on Attar Boulevard, does just that, a magical slow tune where the very first chord on the guitar appears to echo the title itself: اشک گرم من, My Warm Tears.
It wasn’t always like this for Rana and Stevie. Stevie had spent years as a professional studio musician with his own recording studio in New York. Growing up in Tehran, Rana was no stranger to music either and was especially blessed with a father who not only had attended the howzeh school for religious studies, but was also a trained lawyer who spoke fluent English and French. Rana recalls that this man of many talents would often take her to listen to classical music, including opera, but was also a deep devotee of pop music and particularly liked the Beatles. The legacy he left her is a notebook of over 500 poems of his own, written in a gorgeous calligraphic hand. Rana leafs through the pages of her father’s poems and then lets me know that songs number 6 and 8 in the new CD are in fact from her father’s poems. “My brother had a rock band back then,” she says. “They practiced in our basement. One day I just picked up one of the band’s guitars and started playing. I’d sing songs in English and French, not even understanding what I was singing. The truth is, I really learned English by just singing the songs of the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.”
“So what happened? Why did you stop for such a long time?”
What happened was history. She studied graphic design at the Tehran University of Art, and later in America she used her training to do restoration work on art works and furniture. Her love of music was always there, but put on hold. Yet she’d often go to a bar in the East Village where one of the regulars was a man who was the unofficial DJ of the place. “Stevie played all the right songs at the right moment. He’d go to the jukebox, put money in, and select the music. And the music was exactly what the mood of the hour demanded. I was hooked. I went back again and again just to hear Stevie put on music at the place.”
They became friends. But it wasn’t until they attended a Broadway show about the late great country and western singer, Hank Williams, that something clicked. They came home that night and as Stevie began playing some of Hank Williams’ classic tunes on his guitar, Rana suddenly started singing along. “I was amazed,” Stevie says. “I had no idea she could sing, and sing that good. I had no idea she could pick up a guitar and play an instrument.”
For a while they practiced old standards, especially Billie Holiday tunes that Rana was especially fond of. “But one day,” Stevie adds, “I was listening to Rana talk to her mother on the telephone and it dawned on me how beautiful this language, Persian, really is. She had to sing in her own language, I told her.” It was like a lamp had suddenly come on, an Aha! moment. And by now their particular brand of Jazz/Blues inspired rhythms has, in Attar Boulevard, their fourth CD, matured into a soulful album that draws heavily from the grooves of the 1960’s and especially 1970’s. It is an infectious album, one that you cannot stop listening to. And when I ask them what (besides the obvious chemistry that they have together) helps them with the music, Rana begins to answer first and then Stevie joins in: “Sometimes you just have to meet the right person at the right time. If we had met in our twenties none of this would have happened. We wouldn’t have made this music. But by the time we finally came together, we had both reached a certain maturity, you know? We didn’t want to be rock stars. We wanted to make quality music. And we were both looking for that special someone who could go the distance with the other.”
And they’ve certainly gone the distance, I think to myself. All the way to Attar Boulevard. Which is right here, on 27th Street in Manhattan, New York. And it doesn’t matter if down below there is an overpaid film crew smashing up perfectly good equipment because they can. Up here, in Stevie and Rana’s room, Sheikh Attar’s words, put to a catchy Latin beat in song number 3 just about lifts me out of my chair and makes me want to move my body:
ز توام من آنچه هستم، که تو گرنهای نیم من
Rana explains that although the CD won’t be out until September, they’ve decided to make this song, ز توام من, From You, Who I am, available for free on their website starting on Eid-e-Fetr at the end of July. Song number 2, My Warm Tears, may be the perfect slow song, but this catchy upbeat third song is going to be their hit single, and it’s generous of them to make it available for free to their fans, especially their fans in Iran, on Eid-e-Fetr.
ز تو ام من ...
From You, Who I am
I can’t help but think that this is a song and a title that describes this couple and what they do together in one fitting sentence:
ز توام من آنچه هستم، که تو گرنهای نیم من
I exist because of you, and if you don’t exist neither do I …
I look up at Rana and Stevie while the song races to its flawless, bouncing finish: “You guys do know that you have produced a hit with this song. Right? You do know that people are going to be singing it for years and years to come. Right?”
They both nod their heads and smile. “Right,” they both say.
The Farsi version of this article can be found here.